There are few documentaries that evoke the emotion and constitute the compelling viewing of a National Geographic documentary. What started as a picturesque love affair for some in 1902, when the magazine was first published, has persisted for millions through the translation of stories about our natural world to the small screen. But despite Southern Africa being rich with important stories about environmental injustices, I discovered after meeting a budding filmmaker in Botswana that getting National Geographic to buy a film — no matter how great the story — is far from easy.
Elephant Orphans is a fascinating look at the unique relationships forged between man and elephant. Set in the Okavango Delta in Botswana, it introduces us to a family of elephants that has — through the dedication of one man, Randall Jay Moore — been afforded the chance of returning to their African birthright after being orphaned by culling projects or exiled to the holding cells of foreign zoos. Moore, who has more than three decades of experience in handling elephants, recognised their need for a family structure and created a new family out of the strays and orphans he rescued from as far afield as Canada.The brainchild of David Dugmore, who co-produced, co-filmed and directed the production, the idea for Elephant Orphans was first tabled as a fly-on-the-wall series that would document the drama of two of the planet’s more intelligent beings living alongside each other. It was only under the mentorship of distinguished documentary-maker Alan Root that the story would evolve into a poignant 60-minute film.
The birth of the first elephant in camp is what finally clinched the story line. Wanto — “first-born” in Setswana — signified a landmark victory for Moore’s objectives. A successful birth meant the rehabilitation process that would precede their reintroduction into the wild was almost complete.Born two months premature, Wanto’s fight was sadly lost, but nature redeemed itself when an injured calf was found alone in the delta and was adopted by the herd. The documentary was filmed over the period of a year and editing and production was carried out in Johannesburg under the supervision of David Dugmore and co-producer Ross Douglas. Though this locally finished cut drew interest from international distributor Off the Fence, it was the relationship between scriptwriter and associate producer Douglas Bennett Lee and National Geographic that finally spawned a successful broadcasting contract.
A remark by Moore nearly sent them back to the edit suite. National Geographic’s strict research stipulations rejected the anthropomorphic correlation drawn by Moore with his statement in the film: “If you look at the whole animal kingdom, you would be hard-pressed to find another animal that is closer to human beings in terms of social behaviour.” This is stated just before one of the elephants taking a mud bath breaks wind. While it seemed perfectly reasonable for Moore to be making such a claim based on his vast experience with these gentle pachyderms, it was not until the script was amended to cast his comment as a personal opinion that National Geographic would allow its passage to the final edit.
Perhaps it was the seasoned narrative of Lee, who also penned the script for National Geographic’s Africa’s Deadly Dozen — tying with Great Whites as National Geographic TV’s best show for 2000 — that made Elephant Orphans more palatable to its mostly American audience. Without Lee, a senior writer and editor at National Geographic’s Washington DC offices, it is doubtful that this production would ever have reached the global marketplace. Douglas comments: “The onus for a more successful local film industry lies with the local broadcasters to instil more confidence in home-grown stories. A low production-value film is incapable of competing in the international arena and, until the likes of the SABC and e.tv are willing to match the creative and production capability of local filmmakers with the corresponding finance, film in South Africa will continue to go untapped.” A sale to National Geographic does not necessarily translate into a future commission. National Geographic, as the leading broadcaster of exploration, nature and environmental stories, is reluctant to give up its autonomy and offer the people involved in African stories the opportunity to produce them. Award-winning filmmaker Craig Matthews of Doxa Productions is a sterling example. In his epic account (filmed over seven years) of the Himba people of Namibia and how the proposed Epupa dam would affect their lives, he may well have been single-handedly responsible for delaying the project until more extensive environmental impact studies could be carried out.
Despite his painstaking attention to the creative process and reputation for accuracy, Matthews, the recipient of a National Geographic Award for Ochre and Water, has yet to be snapped up by National Geographic to produce another anthropological masterpiece.It has been nearly three years since the filming of Elephant Orphans was completed and in April it enjoys its debut broadcast on DStv’s National Geographic channel. In the Okavango the story continues with two more elephants released back into the wilderness and the birth of a second calf.More recently, though, it is the sad departure of Moore’s long-time friend — the 41-year-old bull Abu, who Moore rescued from the solitary hell of an animal park in Texas, and who led the elephants at the camp into the delta every day — that will make this a powerful reminder of what is possible when man and nature cooperate.